Color, 1969, 104m.
Directed by Gianfranco Parolini
Starring Lee Van Cleef, William Berger, Ignazio Spalla, Aldo Canti, Franco Ressel
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), MGM (DVD), Explosive Media (Blu-ray & DVD) (Switzerland R0 HD/PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

SabataA particular favorite among spaghetti western fans is the character of Sabata, who made his debut in this self-titled film (originally known Sabataunder the lengthier name Ehi amico... c'รจ Sabata, hai chiuso! in Italy). Already a genre favorite for his work in films like The Big Gundown and two Sergio Leone classics, Lee Van Cleef was ideally cast in a wryly comedic role he would repeat in a successful sequel, The Return of Sabata (with Yul Brynner cast in an unofficial middle film originally called Indio Black). While the demand for Italian westerns was just starting to wind down in America in the early '70s, United Artists managed to turn this one into a success in 1970 and keep Van Cleef popular for a few more years.

The gothic, quirky tone of the film is established right away with a windswept nocturnal robbery attempt as some bad guys use a horse-drawn carriage and lots of ropes to try to tear a bank safe out of a wall. As it turns out, the loot is intended by some corrupt town elders to buy up the land to make a profit when the railroad comes through town, essentially selling out everyone to line their own pockets and already leaving some knifed bodies in their wake. Unfortunately there's one person Sabatawise to their scheme: Sabata, a mysterious, rifle-toting stranger who takes the thieves down the next day and brings his bounty back into town for his reward. The vicious leader in charge, land baron Stengel (Ressel), isn't amused by the development and unleashes a string of henchmen to take down this annoyance, who proves to be more adept than expected at escaping death -- and savvy about demanding increasing amounts of money for his silence about Stengel's plan. Sabata

A film full of odd touches like villainous acrobats and colorful sidekicks. Most notable is a fun bit for Five Dolls for an August Moon's William Berger, second billed as the ambiguous, redheaded gun for hire Banjo whose ultimate motivations aren't confirmed until the film's final scene. The rest of the cast is populated with familiar faces, too, such as Run, Man, Run's Linda Veras, Cut-throats Nine's Claudio Andari, and Face to Face's Gianni Rizzo, among others. Also noteworthy is the excellent score by Marcello Giombini (including a great, atmospheric main titles song), who later dove into lovable electronic sleaze with Anthropophagus and Erotic Nights of the Living Dead.

While MGM included both this film and its two successors in a DVD set, fans are far better off seeking either of the Blu-ray versions. The first one from Swiss company Explosive Media and widely distributed in Germany has a specially-produced doc with Parolini and a Lee Van Cleef trailer reel, plus Dolby Digital tracks in English, Italian or German. As usual it's a little tricky nailing down the preferable language for this one given the many nationalities in front of the camera, but considering Van Cleef performed in English, that's probably the way most fans will want to go.

The 2014 American version from Kino Lorber's Studio Classics line comes in both Blu-ray and standalone DVD versions, with the familiar English track in DTS-HD mono (easily the best-sounding version on home video). The image quality is excellent and looks a few notches sharper and richer than the film's airing on MGM HD; the studio apparently kept the elements in fine shape and delivered a nice source for this one. The sole extra is the trippy theatrical trailer, which isn't so far off considering the crazy tone of the main feature.

Reviewed on August 19, 2014.